Writing is often a solitary activity, but connecting with other writers, even informally, has benefits that extend far beyond the social. Poet and 2008 Humber School for Writers alumna Leslie Timmins found out just that. We caught up with her via email to learn more about her journey to publication, the importance of participating in a literary community, and the value of mentorship.
Tell us about your book. How did it come about?
The publication of my collection of poems, Every Shameless Ray (Inanna 2018), came about after a number of rejections from publishers. In one case, my manuscript had been shortlisted with a very prestigious press, and the editor who wrote me to tell me so had praised the poems so fulsomely, I’d shouted with joy at his words. But when the decision came down, in the end my manuscript was not accepted.
This was just one of a number of surprises the road to publication held for me, and Holy Cow, there were a lot of surprises. One of the things I learned is that many publishers no longer have the money or time to provide much in the way of editorial feedback once they have accepted your manuscript. So, hearing this, prior to sending my manuscript for consideration to other publishers again, I decide to hire an editor myself. I’m so glad I did because the editor, Harold Rhenisch, although making very few suggestions for wording changes to my poems, was absolutely brilliant with poetic form. Through his suggestions and examples, I began to play with the energetic organism of a poem and experimenting with ways to represent that on the page. To learn more about this process, see poemsunlimited.com/about-leslie.
Earning a living left little time for anything else through the years I was submitting, then revising my manuscript, but I did continue to do so and to write new work when I could. It may sound cliché, but persistence really is 90% of what is needed to succeed with an individual poem or with the publication of a collection. Something else I did that is usually neglected by new writers was taking the time to invest in the literary community in my city: through attending readings, buying other poets’ books, presenting the work of another poet at a poetry society event, and although a little shy, making myself go to the pub or cafe after these events to chat with other poets. One thing I learned was how I might take the preliminary step of putting together a series of poems and submitting them for publication as a chapbook. The Limits of Windows, my chapbook, was accepted by publisher and Governor General Award winner for poetry David Zieroth of The Alfred Gustav Press, and this proved to be a great stepping stone for me, and a great way to refuel and feel hopeful again. Just as importantly, the example of the more experienced, mature poets I was meeting made a lasting impression: I learned that making an investment in my local literary community has a value all its own. I hope that more new writers find that out for themselves.
Although this may seem like an awful lot of energy and time is needed to succeed with publication, whenever I go out to do a reading from my book, I feel the confidence that comes from knowing the poems are strong and original. And I feel humbled by the privilege of reading to audiences who, as I look out at people’s faces when I’m reading a poem, are so generous, eager for my success, and willing to bring their own intelligence and vulnerability to the reception of my work.
How did you find the experience of working with your writing mentor? What insight into your writing did you gain through the mentorship process?
I had completed a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing before I took the distance writing studio through Humber. And although I gained a lot from the master’s program, I was craving a more intimate, one-on-one experience than a workshop, especially after recently surviving a life-threatening cancer. Isabel Huggan at Humber had just the kind of honest, direct, and warmhearted approach to poetry and mentorship that I needed. Which didn’t mean I wasn’t cantankerous and skeptical at first, but for some reason Isabel decided to put up with – and challenge – my initial distrust of her repeated requests for greater clarity in my poems. Drawing on the relationship that had developed through some rough patches at the start, Isabel and I co-wrote an essay called “with affection for what is wanting to be expressed,” published by Other Voices (unfortunately now out of print), based on our correspondence about the revision process we used for working through successive drafts of my poems. This quote from me from the testy beginning of our relationship is telling: “Well, how obvious did I need to be?” This quote, from Isabel, is equally telling: “I am in a position to help you define yourself, as you seem so ready to do. Digging deeper into the foundation of the poems themselves, for a start.” I had mistaken Isabel’s approach as a demand for rational proof or tedious exposition, but as we proceeded I felt reassured by her interest and commitment and even affection for my poems and for me, and began to trust the process which eventually made way – surprisingly – not only for clarity, but for more intuitive leaps in my writing. By working closely with Isabel, I was able to push aside the defensiveness and fear that would have kept the true poems hidden and unrealized.
To learn more about Leslie and her work, visit her website or connect with her via Facebook. You can also listen to her North By Northwest interview with Sheryl MacKay by clicking here and scrolling to the 56:00 minute mark. Every Shameless Ray is available for purchase via Inanna Publications, Amazon, Indigo, or your favourite independent bookseller.
Photo Credit: Ron Grant